Building STEAM Through Interdisciplinary Workshops
By Shalini Le Gall Curator of Academic Programs at the Colby College Museum
As STEAM initiatives gain traction on campuses across the country, art museums have become laboratory spaces for students, teachers, and arts professionals to experiment with integrating the creative and visual arts into other fields. While few doubt the positive effects of such collaborations on student learning, there are significant challenges to bridging the gap between fields often studied in academic silos such as biology, engineering, computer science, and the visual arts. One way to potentially overcome these gaps is through the development of interdisciplinary arts-based workshops geared toward instructors who are intrigued by arts integration, but still wondering how to achieve their teaching goals with such experimental pedagogy.
With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, such workshops occur twice yearly at the Colby College Museum of Art, and are co-sponsored by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. These gatherings of faculty from two liberal arts colleges in Maine stretch across two days and spark points of intersection between disparate fields. In such environments an artist, a biologist, and a poet find ways to talk to each other about art from their places of expertise, while reaching across the boundaries of their disciplines. The success of these interactions has relied on a mix of structured and unstructured conversations, and a commitment to an organic and flexible notion of STEAM that empowers people to think about art within their own fields.
Faculty workshop sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the Colby College Museum of Art (Waterville, Maine).
In a recent Mellon Faculty Workshop, we approached STEAM with a focus on nature and the environment. Entitled “Art and Nature: Science, Environment, and Ecocriticism,” the workshop included faculty participants from the departments of Anthropology, Art, Biology, English, Environmental Studies, German, French & Italian, and Psychology. Some sessions involved formal presentations by museum curators, while others allowed faculty the opportunity to share their STEAM pedagogy with their colleagues. Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, was the invited guest speaker and discussed the upcoming exhibition “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment” (2018). His analysis of how ecocriticism and other fields of enquiry have changed the way curators and scholars think about images of nature and the environment flowed into other conversations led by scholars outside the field of art and the museum world. An anthropologist led a discussion on the cultural, economic, and scientific impact of Robert E. Peary’s expedition to the North Pole, and a biologist talked about how his students learn from illustrations in the original 19th century editions of John James Audobon’s Birds of America.
These structured conversations prompted faculty to imagine how they might bring their own approaches to works of art, but as often occurs in workshops, the informal moments allowed for more spontaneous interdisciplinary thinking to emerge. As a museum curator spoke about the aesthetics of fog in Whistler’s Nocturne: River at Battersea (1878), an environmental studies professor described the chemical composition of this fog during the Industrial Revolution, while an English professor remarked on poetic interpretations of fog as “natural” phenomenon in a 19th century urban environment. Similarly, an interdisciplinary group of faculty approached Sherry Levine’s Untitled (Golden Knots 2), (1987), and discussed the symbolic value of abstraction, the type of wood used by the artist, and manipulations of the wood grain and texture. This line of enquiry transitioned into an art conservator’s analysis of the material composition, and decomposition, of objects. Encountering works of art with colleagues from other fields, faculty in this workshop embraced the visual experience and shared their thoughts on possible interpretations and applications.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: River at Battersea, 1878. Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 151.2013.
However, participants also described the challenges they faced in moving from such brainstorming discussions toward the development of lesson plans and assignments needed for sustainable arts integration. Comments from the evaluations included: “I would like to see a syllabus,” “Would have loved to have readings to assign to students,” and “…more pedagogies and sample exercises.” In subsequent workshops, we reached out to the Center for Learning and Teaching at Bowdoin College to better understand how organic methods of arts integration could be supported by pedagogical research. Faculty found backwards course design to be an especially useful pedagogical tool in thinking about how to build arts integration through an entire course or assignment. In this model instructors identify a few key goals and objectives and then work backwards to build the assignments, readings, lectures, and other content in ways that help students achieve the desired outcomes. From the perspective of building sustainable STEAM projects, the model encourages systemic arts integration rather than individual assignments, while allowing instructors the opportunity to tailor the course to also serve specific curricular or departmental needs. For example, instead of making an isolated visit to a museum or gallery to discuss the link between art and natural science, an introductory biology class could also ask students to critically consider the visual images in their textbooks, the development of digital and three-dimensional modeling, and the function of drawing and sketching in laboratory notes and reports. Such an organic mode of integration allows instructors to still meet their discipline-specific course objectives (in this case, teaching students biology), while grasping the analytical, creative, and dynamic potential of the arts.
Sustained STEAM efforts are also facilitated through collaboration between and across disparate STEAM projects. Colby College recently received an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a campus-wide initiative in the environmental humanities. By bringing faculty together from different disciplines across the College—through on-going seminars, lectures, and other events—the initiative promotes the type of interdisciplinary work critical to the success of STEAM and fosters widespread investment in the process. Successful arts integration efforts will depend on such investment and collaboration to promote an environment in which the value of the arts in STEM work is not only understood, but also actively encouraged.
Shalini Le Gall is an art historian and museum educator with extensive experience in object-based teaching and learning. In her current position as the Curator of Academic Programs at the Colby College Museum of Art, she works with faculty across the College to integrate the museum's collection into their teaching, assignments, and research, through installations and exhibitions. Prior to coming to Colby, she was an art history instructor at NYU-Paris, where she used the city's museums as an extension of the classroom and the basis for experiential student learning.
Le Gall received her Ph.D. in Art History from Northwestern University, specializing in nineteenth-century European art. Her publications include articles on the British Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), and the French photographer Charles Marville (1813-1879), and her research interests extend to photography, transnationalism, orientalism, and post-colonial studies.